Children’s Lit Corner

A couple of weeks ago I was cleaning out some boxes of books in the donations room of my library when a slim volume caught my eye. It was a old paperback copy of stories written by Sholom Aleichem. Now I am quite familiar with some of Sholom’s stories, including “Tevye the Dairyman” (the inspiration for The Fiddler on the Roof) and a beautiful cycle of stories called “The Song of Songs” about a young man and his love for a girl. I also enjoy the clever picture book by Erica Silverman and Mordicai Gerstein — Sholom’s Treasure: How Sholom Aleichem Became a Writer. But as I began reading this new discovery, something occurred to me that I wanted to share with you.

As I read, I was struck by how easily and naturally Sholom Aleichem wove the everyday religious observance of his characters into the stories. It wasn’t that the stories were about Jewishness, but more that they were about incidents or adventures that happened over the course of the characters’ lives, and those lives were intimately bound up in religious observance. This made me think of other children’s books I’ve read in which religion is neither minimized or stressed, but just seems to be a natural part of the characters’ experience. I thought of such books as Anne of Green Gables, where her Presbyterian upbringing seems as natural as her red hair. The Little House books also come to mind, especially when the Ingalls family had moved into town and there was a church close enough to attend regularly. Then I remembered Tom Sawyer and his escapades winning the Sunday School Bible, meeting Becky at the church picnic, and of course strolling into his own funeral. These books, and so many others written during or about the nineteenth or early twentieth centuries, have religious observance woven into the story itself, not as a plot element necessarily, but as the fabric on top of which all the rest of the story is embroidered.

This made me wonder about how church attendance is represented these days. I have been trying to find similar examples of books written in the past decade or so in which religion is similarly portrayed—as an element of the characters’ lives but not the main reason for the action of the plot. For some reason, finding those books is proving to be very difficult indeed! Religious observance is such a huge part of an active LDS family’s life. I would love to see some books that reflect that type of ecclesiastical participation, if only to help children from our culture realize that church going is a recognized part of other children’s lives. Maybe I am not looking in the right places. I have expanded my search, as you can see, to include well-known books written from at least the seventies on. Here are a few of the books I’ve found, and some brief notes about them. If you can think of additional examples, please jump right in and share them:

  • Code Talkers, by Joseph Bruchac. The Navajo religion, with the special use of pollen and the songs of blessing and purification are an integral part of the main character’s experience.
  • Millions, by Frank Cottrell Boyce. Damian is obsessed with Catholic saints. He brings them into everyday conversation. He also meets some Latter-day Saints!
  • Ramona and Her Father, by Beverly Cleary. When Beezus is chosen to be Mary for the church pageant, Ramona sees her in a different light.
  • The Dark Is Rising, by Susan Cooper. The whole Stanton family attend church and sing in the choir or participate in other types of religious ways to celebrate Christmas.
  • The Conch Bearer, by Chitra Divakaruni. Hinduism is visible in every aspect of this story of a young boy who is on a quest to take a sacred conch to a shrine in the Himalayas.
  • The Oracle Betrayed, by Catherine Fisher. The religion at the heart of this fantasy story may be made up, but it is a main part of the entire series, of which this is the first.
  • One-Eyed Cat, by Paula Fox. Ned’s father is a minister, and he lives his religion by example. Sometimes this is very difficult for Ned to understand. It is a lot to live up to.
  • Blood Red Horse, by K. M. Grant. This series is set in the middle ages, with Crusaders and knights and monks and devout adherents to both Christianity and Islam.
  • Book of a Thousand Days, by Shannon Hale. Shannon Hale does a marvelous job of weaving the religion of the Mongolian steppes into this lovely story.
  • The Star of Kazan, by Eva Ibbottson. Annika was found abandoned in a church when she was a baby. Her discovery was a miracle, and she is always aware of her spiritual roots.
  • Redwall, by Brian Jacques. Okay, maybe mice and other animals can’t really be monks and priests, but Brian Jacques has created a believable tale where religion is certainly a major part of the creatures’ lives.
  • The Diary of a Wimpy Kid, by Jeff Kinney. It’s not the most reverent book, admittedly, but the Heffley family does attend church.
  • A Ring of Endless Light, by Madeleine L’Engle. Vicky’s beloved grandfather is a minister, and the wind of religion and spirituality breathes through this book.
  • The Best Christmas Pageant Ever, by Barbara Robinson. This favorite from 1972 shows a community immersed in religious culture and observance.
  • The Heavenly Village, by Cynthia Rylant. What happens after death? This book gives one person’s interpretation.
  • The Wednesday Wars, by Gary D. Schmidt. Holling is the only Protestant boy in his class. Half his class goes to Catechism classes on Wednesday afternoons, half go to Hebrew school.
  • Stories for Children, by Isaac Bashevis Singer. Like Sholom Aleichem’s stories, Singer writes from a Jewish tradition.
  • Moon over Manifest, by Clare Vanderpool. Abilene meets Sister Redempta, who helps her learn more about herself and what it means to be a friend.
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8 Responses to Children’s Lit Corner

  1. Jonathan Langford says:

    A good collection of titles, including some I’ll have to put on my (ever increasingly long) to-read list.

    Religion features importantly in both positive and negative ways in Katherine Kurtz’s Deryni fantasy books, and also in the fantasy novels of David Eddings. Characters in Orson Scott Card’s Speaker for the Dead are practicing Catholics, and the leaders of the colony include religious leaders. I’m sure there are others as well I’m forgetting at the moment…

  2. Kathryn Poulter says:

    Yes, there are some good grown-up and young adult fantasy books where some sort of religion figures into the narrative. Think about the strange worship of the god-Kings in Brandon Sanderson’s books, for example.

  3. Th. says:

    .

    These aren’t strictly kids books, but Watership Down and The Death of a Disco Dancer and My Name Is Asher Lev just screamed to mind.

  4. Maud Hart Lovelace’s stories–the “Betsy” books. Loved these as a kid (still love them) and they are exactly what you describe… though I don’t know if they count as they fall into the same category, time-wise, as Anne of Green Gables. Turn of the century-WW1.

    What about “Are You There God, it’s Me Margaret.” Judy Blume.

  5. C. M. Malm says:

    In the Veronica Ganz books, at one point Veronica is invited to her friend’s bar mitzvah.

    In The Good Master and The Singing Tree by Kate Seredy, we see a number of intertwined religious/cultural practices of Hungary, and in all her books, a belief in God is inherent.

    Then, of course, there’s Katherine Paterson. In Bridge to Terebithia, Leslie, who has been raised to be an atheist by her parents, goes to church once with Jesse and ends up fascinated and even moved by aspects of the service that Jesse simply takes for granted.

  6. I love this description: ““It wasn’t that the stories were about Jewishness, but more that they were about incidents or adventures that happened over the course of the characters’ lives, and those lives were intimately bound up in religious observance.” People are always using Potok as an example of what might be possible in a novel with a Mormon worldview, but they forget that most of Potok’s work involves the edges of that religious expression and the tension between people whose beliefs vary. His more famous novels don’t take place within one religious worldview but balance on the edges of more than one (orthodox vs. Hasidism, for example, or practicing vs. non-practicing). A Mormon book that is comparable to what Potok does would not necessarily be considered a Mormon book by fully active members, because it would involve people leaving the church or going from practicing to non-practicing (or doing or advocating things foreign to our usual experience of Mormonism, such as in _The Backslider_). However, I am fascinated by the possibilities of the kind of fiction you describe, in which the religious practice is a deep and motivating part of the main character but is not a central plot element.

    • Moriah Jovan says:

      However, I am fascinated by the possibilities of the kind of fiction you describe, in which the religious practice is a deep and motivating part of the main character but is not a central plot element.

      I’ve written this book. It, as you say, will “not necessarily be considered a Mormon book by fully active members,” but I find people who are asking for this type of book really DON’T want to read mine. So it annoys me when the request keeps being made and the title keeps being supplied, only to be snubbed as too [insert Mormon snub about standards here]. For them I say, “Go write your own book.”

      /cranky mccrank

  7. Wm Morris says:

    If we’re talking YA, then John Brown’s Servant of a Dark God (which is epic fantasy, but features a YA protagonist and does so in a very YA way [there's some angst]) is a fascinating of a portrait of a religious young man who then discovers that everything he thought was right is now wrong and has to feel his way through to a conversion to a new kind of faith.

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